Loss and damage: The battle over heating costs

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt (HPD) — It was an absolute loss, the kind that tends to end up blurred in big impersonal statistics like the $40 billion in damage from this summer’s flooding in Pakistan, which inundated a third of the country.

“We lost everything, our house and our possessions,” said Taj Mai, a mother of seven and four months pregnant, at a camp for people displaced by flooding in Pakistan’s Punjab province. “At least in a camp, our children will have food and milk.”

It is the human side of a complicated issue that is likely to dominate Egypt’s climate talks this month. It’s a matter of big money, justice, blame and taking responsibility. Extreme weather events get worse as the planet warms, and one study estimates that human-caused climate change increased Pakistan’s flood-provoking rainfall by up to 50%.

As Pakistan was flooded, six energy companies – ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, Saudi Aramco and Total Energies – made $97.49 billion in profits from July to September. Poorer countries, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, European leaders and US President Joe Biden have called for fossil fuel companies to pay a tax on those windfall profits. Many want some of that money, along with additional aid from rich countries that emit most of the heat-trapping gases, to be used to pay countries that have already emitted pollution, such as Pakistan.

The issue of countries paying for their climate disasters is known in international climate negotiations as “loss and damage”, and revolves around compensation.

“Loss and damage is going to be the priority and the defining factor of whether COP27 is successful or not,” said Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, referring to the summit in Egypt. United Nations leaders say they are looking for “some significant loss and damage” and were “certainly encouraged” by the talks on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which put the issue on the summit’s agenda.

That loss and damage money is different from two other financial aid schemes already introduced to help poorer countries develop carbon-free energy sources and adapt to future warming.

Since 2009, the world’s rich countries have promised to spend $100 billion on climate aid for poor countries, most of it to help them move away from coal, oil and natural gas and build greener energy systems. Authorities want to add up to half that figure to build systems to help adapt to future weather disasters.

None of those financial promises have yet been met, and they don’t address the issue of paying for current and past disasters like heat waves in India, floods in Pakistan and droughts in Africa.

“Our current level of global warming at 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) has already caused widespread and dangerous loss and damage to nature and billions of people,” said Climate Analytics scientist Adelle Thomas of the Bahamas.

“Loss and damage are unavoidable and unevenly distributed” and hit poor and elderly countries hardest, he explained, as well as the poor and vulnerable.

After years of avoiding talking about compensation in climate talks, US and European officials say they are willing to talk about loss and damage. But the United States, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in history, will not accept anything that implies taking legal responsibility, according to its special envoy, John Kerry.

Warming emissions from the United States caused at least $32 billion in damage to Pakistan’s gross domestic product between 1990 and 2014, according to calculations by Dartmouth climate researchers Christopher Callahan and Justin Mankin, based on past emissions. And that only takes into account the damage derived from the temperature, not the rains.

“Loss and damage is a way of both acknowledging past damage and compensating for that past damage,” Mankin said. “These damages can be identified scientifically. And now it’s up to politics to defend that damage or pay for that damage.”

The United States emits more carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels in 16 days than all of Pakistan in a year, according to figures from the Global Carbon Project.

Americans will not accept such payments to distant nations and that is not the way they see the issue, said Karen Harbert, CEO of the American Gas Association.

“It’s not just Pakistan. Let’s talk about Puerto Rico. Let’s talk about Louisiana. There are other things going on here at home that we also need to pay attention to and help our fellow Americans,” Herbert said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“If there was an opportunity to talk to the people in Pakistan, I would say (…) that the solution is first of all, that with natural gas they have the opportunity to have a much cleaner electrical system than the one they have today” , he added.

But for Aaisa Bibi, a pregnant mother of four in Punjab province, cheaper, cleaner energy means little when her family has nowhere to live except a refugee camp.

“With less than 1% of global emissions, Pakistan is certainly not part of the climate change problem,” said Shabnam Baloch, director of the International Red Cross in Pakistan. People like Bibi are simply trying to survive floods, heat waves, droughts, crop failures, water shortages and inflation.

In Kenya’s semi-arid Makueni County, where a devastating drought has lasted for more than three years, lives 47-year-old goat and sheep herder John Gichuki. “It’s traumatic to see your cattle die of hunger and thirst,” he recounted.

Gichuki’s maize and pulse crops have failed four seasons in a row. “The farm is at the mercy of the weather,” he noted.

In India, record heat associated with climate change caused deaths and failed crops. Elsewhere it is the devastation of tropical cyclones, wetter and drier from burning fossil fuels.

This global issue is paralleled in the United States in the sometimes heated conversation about compensation for damages caused by slavery.

“In many ways we talk about compensation,” said Sacoby Wilson, a professor of health and environmental justice at the University of Maryland. “It’s an appropriate term,” he said, because rich northern countries benefited from fossil fuels while the poorer global south bore the brunt of the damage in the form of floods, droughts, climate refugees and famine.

The Barbados government has proposed changes to the way multinational development banks lend money to poorer countries to account for climate vulnerability and disasters. Pakistan and others have asked for debt relief.

“It’s about putting ourselves in the shoes of others,” said Avinash Persaud, special envoy to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley.

Persaud suggested a long-term rate of high oil, coal and natural gas prices, but the other way around. At the current high prices there would be no tax, so as not to increase inflation. But once fossil fuel prices drop by 10%, 1% of that decline would go to victims of climate loss and damage, without increasing the cost of living.

Guterres, who has described the movement on loss and damage as proof of the success of the conference in Egypt, has appointed two high-level national officials to try to broker a deal: the German climate envoy and former Greenpeace director Jennifer Morgan and the minister Environment Chilean, Maisa Rojas.

“The fact that it has been adopted as an item on the agenda shows progress and that the parties are taking a mature and constructive attitude on this,” United Nations climate secretary Simon Stiell told a news conference on Sunday. “It is a difficult subject. It has been in the air for more than 30 years. So the fact that it’s a specific item on the agenda, I think it looks good.”

“The most revealing thing will be how those conversations progress in the concrete conversation of the next few weeks,” Stiell.

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climate data journalists Mary Katherine Wildeman in Hartford, Connecticut, and Camille Fassett in Seattle; Wanjohi Kabukuru in Mombasa, Kenya; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington, Shazia Bhatti in Rajanpur, Pakistan; Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, and Megan Janetsky in Havana, Cuba, contributed to this report.

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Seth Borenstein is on Twitter at @borenbears

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Associated Press climate and environment coverage is supported by several private foundations. HPD is solely responsible for all its content.

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